Friday, April 20, 2012

A Few (Almost Certainly Not) Final Thoughts on TPKs

When old-schoolers and new-schoolers get talking about TPKs, I suspect there's a certain amount of rose-colored nostalgia at work.

It's certainly true that TPKs were more common in OD&D and AD&D than they've become since the latter days of 2nd Edition. But the notion that back in the day everyone shrugged off TPKs and character death in general as "just the way things are--take it like a man and roll up a new sacrifice to the slaughter god" rings a bit false.

Here's what I recall. Characters were fragile. Most of them claimed a spot in the bone orchard before they reached 2nd level, and it was no big deal. Rolling up a new victim took 5 to 10 minutes, and you might do it two or three times in an afternoon.

But once a character made it past the level 2 hump, he became something special. By 5th level, you took it hard if he clocked out, because that character represented months of play. Starting over at 1st level was a real kick in the teeth. You were out a heap of hard-won treasure and magic (some of the material goods might pass down to your new character--if any was recovered, if your new character was related to the dead one, if the survivors felt like sharing, and if the DM allowed it). Your replacement was way behind the rest of the party in XP, which meant spending a lot of combat rounds focused on just staying alive while everyone fought monsters that were too tough for you. A TPK was almost better--at least you were all in the same boat, but you were still upset about the loss. It wasn't a simple matter of picking up with new characters where the old ones left off, because the old ones had been operating down on the fifth level of the dungeon when they were handed their harps, and rookies would be instant monster snacks down there.

So I don't remember people laughing off the death of medium- or high-level characters back then with much more nonchalance than they do now. Low-level characters? Absolutely, they were disposable ciphers. But high-level characters, or any with outstanding stats such as a naturally-rolled illusionist or monk, was a rare bird whose loss would be felt deeply.


  1. The best games are when a loss is felt deeply. Part of that comes from developing a character and investing not only the time taken in playing the game but the emotional investment in caring about your character and developing your pen and paper alter ego into something more than a disposable two-dimesional cliche assembled from a kit. TPKs and character death at mid to high level were never a regular occurence in the games I ran, participated in or shared stories about, especially in the hey-day of gaming, but they did happen.

    Some players took it to heart and like adults came back to the game. Some couldn't face it and it soured the game for them, and some whined and pissed about it like children and we were glad to see the back of them.

    I don't think the nostalgia for high risk, deeply felt games with emotionally mature players is rose colored at all. It may be a lament for the dumbed down, super-powered and emotionally juvenile system of hand holding, coddling and swathing in protective layers of game mechanics and DM intervention which currently passes for roleplaying today.

    I am reminded of a Christmas Story movie where the dysfunctional little brother is wrapped in so many winter coats he can barely move and can't put down his arms. The old days of gaming were more like the older brother going beserk on the yellow-eyed bully and pounding the crap out of him while mouthing every swear word he ever heard his father utter in his life.

    I'll go with the Red Ryder air-rifle even if I will shoot my eye out (or my players) and the chance at character death or a TPK.

  2. Thank you. I've rarely seen character death taken lightly by my fellow players. Usually, the stages of grief come out in full force, and there's an awkward scene. I don't believe it's necessary or appropriate to have a reaction like that, and I hold myself to a higher standard, but I recognize that it can happen.

    Since it's almost always possible to provide consequences that are no less harsh but avoid that particular trigger while allowing PCs to make comebacks from their failures, I generally prefer to do that.

  3. What I remember of D&D from my teen years is that by the time my guy reached about fifth level, we could usually find some cleric who'd be willing to cast the necessary spells, for a price, if he punked out. Death's sting was mostly felt in the coin pouch.

    But D&D was never my favorite rpg, and in the games I liked best, death was permanent, and while it was disappointing to lose an experienced character, it wasn't a show-stopper.

    Maybe it was a hard lesson learned from playing wargames - when I first started wargaming, I was too protective of my units. In time I learned that a commander must sacrifice units to achieve an objective. Perhaps that carried over into my roleplaying game experience.

  4. That's an interesting observation about wargames. They were the gateway into roleplaying for me and many of the people I played with in the '70s. Wargamers learn to accept casualties in pursuit of a mission. (Though it's a lot easier to take the loss of a hundred peasants or some towed PaK50s than a dozen heavy knights or a platoon of tiger tanks.) How much that experience colored our reactions to character losses, I can't say. It's worth thinking about, though.

  5. It is always brings a tear to the eye to lose Peiper when playing Bitter Woods, but that is pretty much because your winter offensive is toast if it happens.

  6. As ever wise and insightful observations Steve.

  7. It's not just about what happened back in the day with the Gygaxian-era D&D systems. It's also about what happens today with those systems.

    In my current AD&D campaign, PCs are not shielded from death, and they do die occasionally. Sometimes it's a little sad, but everybody moves on. Between my own campaigns and my interactions with various other current players in Gygaxian-era D&D, it can't just be rose-colored nostalgia, because we're doing it today.

    Most of the older systems already have plenty of built-in ways to mitigate the "aww shucks, I need to start at first level" feeling. Everything from promoting henchmen to full PC status, to the obvious raise dead and/or wish (if you have access), to comparatively fast advancement for low-level PCs in high-level groups, to simply having the new 1st level character seek adventure with other PCs for a while.

    The possibility of irrevocable death helps fuel the use of various features of the game, from henchmen, to domain establishment, to player agency, to dependence on player smarts, to open table & sandbox play, to DM's not trying to "tell a story". It's also a compelling part of Gygax's eschewing balance-via-equality in favor of balance through incomparability and risk/reward trade-offs.

    Gygaxian-era D&D is (partly) about seeing how well you can do before your character dies or retires. Real irrevocable death is obviously necessary in that sort of game. It's kind of like Galaga or Pac Man; you can easily imagine how the play and social experience around those kinds of games would change if there was no way for those games to really end, yes?

  8. Guy: Wise insights, as ever. I don't mean to contradict any of that. It's just that lately, I've heard more than the usual amount of "back when I was a teenager, we had to carry our own corpses back to town, and it was uphill the whole way!" In my experience at least, the true casualty counts among upper-level characters don't entirely merit such paratrooper-level bravado.

  9. It's not that big a deal. The party throws their wealth into a pool and pays the clergy to bring the hero back to life, who after a substantial donation, are happy to do so. Sure, the total gold in the party takes a large hit and everybody tells the player to be a bit more careful next time (perhaps to avoid the giant spiders who can instant kill with the poison!) and everybody moves on, albeit with a story to tell.

  10. Character death has always been rare in my group. It generally happened only when we did something profoundly stupid, in character or not.
    However, we were all extremely invested in roleplaying our characters. The death of one of us undoubtedly caused ripples that were felt for the rest of the surviving character's lives.

  11. The early TSR modules really enforced the "lives are cheap" philosophy, IIRC. Running those at the specified character level (or, God help you, at the minimum character level) was usually pretty fatal.

  12. Death was cheap in those early TSR modules as pretty much each one was a Tournament module made to weed out players via character death during the 4 hour slot. We learned that after a few hard lessons, then went back to crafting our own dungeons.